Robert Peston and the rise of scat journalism

Earlier this week, BBC economics editor Robert Peston voiced his concerns surrounding the dumbing down of journalism and the ever-growing influence of the Public Relations industry. Specifically, he was worried about “professional bullshitters” becoming “more powerful and effective as gatekeepers and minders of businesses”.

While I have to agree with Mr Peston on the dumbing down of journalism, I personally feel that the attempt to blame it on some mythical seedy PR industry was little more than a lazy effort to dodge responsibility.

For some reason, Peston seems to believe that PRs possess a deep-seated control over the press, allowing them to corrupt the news agenda and pull the media’s strings however they see fit. As much as some PRs would like to agree with this image, sadly it simply isn’t true. The only people who hold that level of power over the contents of the news are the journalists themselves.

As with most things in the internet age, the focus of newspapers has switched from the quality of content, to the quantity of content. As a result of this change, many journalists are so desperate to generate “click-throughs” and “real-time content” that they’re more than happy to accept the first steaming turd of a story that falls into their laps. The fact that the PR industry is squatted over them ready to oblige,­­ is little more than simple supply and demand.

As vivid an image as that is, I have to say that it isn’t really 100% accurate. The truth of the matter is that journalists are no longer just waiting to receive a steamy turd… they are actively seeking one out. Like deranged coprophiliacs, many journalists are frantically searching for a lukewarm dump to merrily smear across the front page of their sites.

The worst examples of this scatological foraging can be found across so called “journalist enquiry services” such as HARO (Help A Reporter Out), or the UK’s Response Source. These tools are designed to allow journalists to fire questions and requests directly into the gleeful inboxes of PRs, businesses and anyone willing to pay out for a subscription.

In their lowest form, such request services are simply used as shout-outs for free gifts:

Resonse Source Journalism

…or as desperate cries from low-level bloggers attempting to populate their sites with pre-written content:

Response Source Bias

While such requests may be crass, they at least represent a fairly meaningless transaction between the two groups. The PRs get free coverage, and the bloggers get free stuff, and nobody loses any integrity (mainly as they didn’t have any to begin with).

The only problems arise when “professional” journalists start to use these services to gain sources for their own “high quality” news content. Unlike the bloggers, these journalists aren’t looking for pre-written content, but rather stats and additional comment to include within a story.

A fairly typical example would be:

Wind Turbines PR

While this may seem like a fairly innocent form of research, it still represents a worrying reduction in the quality of journalistic sources. By inviting industry commentary, journalists are encouraging paid lobbyists to flood their inboxes with sponsored research and custom-built ‘facts’.

Even more worrying is the fact that journalists are increasingly using these services to support their own personal agendas and pre-existing biases. As an example, consider the below Response Source request that I received only a few weeks ago:

Response Source 4

Worryingly enough, that request didn’t come from some obscure far-right publication, but was rather an appeal from a well-read and well-respected UK newspaper. This is the new age of journalism, where instead of evidence informing opinions, opinions inform evidence. Clearly something has gone terribly wrong.

While the Robert Pestons of this world can put on their blinkers and blame the PR boogieman, I simply don’t believe it. Regardless of PR, internet culture has worked to replace journalistic integrity with lazy research and short-term thinking.

Honest journalism is decaying, and it’s decaying from the inside.

Alex Warren
Alex Warren
Miserablist, whiskey-drinker, and general tinpot shambles. Alex Warren has a weary pessimism for all things media, politics and tech.